Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and God Hates Geeks.
Donnie Yen Motivates and Flagellates as Eccentric Educator
Directed by Kam Ka-wai (the second assistant director of Ip Man and Ip Man 2) and written by Chan Tai-lee (co-writer of the Ip Man trilogy, Special ID, and The Monkey King), Big Brother throws Donnie Yen into the title role of Henry Chen; a man determined to teach at Tak Chi Secondary School despite his lack of experience and weak financial benefits of being part of the staff. Henry finds himself as the liberal studies teacher of a school filled with students who are a part of a low income household.
Armed with nothing but a recommendation letter and two arms equipped with half sleeve tattoos, Henry Chen attempts to show interest in the rambunctious hobbies of his disobedient class, but resorts to simply triggering the classroom’s sprinkler system with eagle eye precision and a rubber band trick MacGyver would be envious of. The education bureau is threatening to sever the funding for Tak Chi Secondary School since the majority of its students aren’t enrolling in college; Tak Chi is on the verge of closure if enrollment rates aren’t up in the following year.
Henry goes out of his way to cater to the five most insubordinate students in his class. After a fight in the school cafeteria, the troubled students are given one final chance to behave or else they’ll be expelled. Nearly all of them take it seriously, but Jack Li (Jack Lok) chooses to leave to focus on working. The film opens with a troubled teen montage focusing on the brotherly fighting of twins Chris and Bruce Guan (Chris and Bruce Tong) the run-ins with police Gordon Xiang (Gordon Lau) encounters on a daily basis thanks to being a ticket scalper, Gladys Wang (Gladys Li) always being put last by her father since he favors her younger brother, and Jack lying to his grandmother so she won’t worry about him.
Half of the film is devoted to Henry winning over these five unruly students. If you know anyone that is a teacher, you know that none of them have that kind of time to devote to students who misbehave. The administration is too busy drowning them in paperwork, piling new student after new student into overcrowded classrooms, and typically expecting too much from them in an eight-hour work day leading to them working up to 14-hour days just to try to stay afloat. Henry is an unorthodox school teacher. There’s a scene where an uptight female teacher named Ms. Liang (Joe Chen, The Monkey King) who lives on constantly giving her students paperwork and mock tests everyday literally throws the book of teacher guidelines to Henry who proceeds in never looking at a single page of it. Big Brother literally and figuratively has its main character throwing the rule book out the window, which is overwhelmingly lame and slightly insulting to the audience. It’s as if screenwriter Chan Tai-lee and director Kam Ka-wai insist on rubbing our face in the fact that Henry Chen isn’t a normal teacher, which is blatantly obvious from the opening scene.
The “bad” students have this heated rivalry with the basketball team for some ungodly reason. The basketball team is filled with students who make decent grades and somehow they feel entitled to things that poorer students aren’t able to obtain. The feud erupts over an empty coke bottle as insults about the “bad” students not having parents are slung consistently while the “bad” students are usually the ones to throw the first punch. Meanwhile, Henry spends what seems like one night in his classroom without sleep going over these troubled students files. Henry doesn’t want to give up on any student while Principal Patrick Lin wants to rid the school of the most troublesome students who don’t test well in an effort to save the school and secure its funding. At the same time, the land the school is located on is desired for luxury housing. Word has gotten around that Tak Chi may not be around come next year and owner of Eagle Boxing Centre, Kane Luo (Yu Kang, Dragon), is determined to help Tak Chi fail no matter what so his bosses are happy.
The film is this bizarre mixture of drama and action as Big Brother is heavy on drama and light on action for the majority of the film. Donnie Yen fans will be most excited in the locker room brawl and the scuffle on the empty school campus sequences. For being in his mid-fifties, Donnie Yen is still incredibly fast. In his 2007 film Flash Point, Yen was able to incorporate mixed martial arts maneuvers into his fighting style, which made the action feel refreshing and exhilarating in comparison to every other martial arts film out there. Yen has teased that MMA influence in his films over the past decade, but it hasn’t been utilized to the same extent. He brings a lot of that MMA influence back in Big Brother and it is absolutely a welcome aspect to see in another Donnie Yen film.
Donnie Yen’s portrayal of Henry Chen is also some of his finest acting. He is generally likeable as soon as you meet him and his out-of-the-box method of teaching reaches the students in ways that textbook learning could never hope to. Yen is determined and motivated as Henry Chen and seems to always be in a good mood with a smile on his face for every occasion. His goal never falters even when the situation is grim. Henry’s actions are bold, but his intentions are pure. He succeeds because he is honest with everyone he meets. The mystery surrounding his character only makes Yen’s character more intriguing. Yen has grown over the years not only as a martial artist, but as an actor. It’s truly satisfying to see that he has an outlet to unveil a part of his talent that we’d really only seen in the Ip Man films before this.
Big Brother has this uplifting theme that seems to point towards anyone being able to make amends despite their past. The ability to encourage others and be inspiring to everyone is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. You can predict early on that there’s a connection between Henry Chen and Tak Chi Secondary School and there’s more to his past than the film first lets on. The film attempts to send a positive message that involves even the worst of people being capable of extraordinary things. The film may be cliché at times and its premise isn’t exactly original, but the effort it makes to make its audience feel good perseveres over its flaws. This feels like Donnie Yen trying to be a role model for a younger generation and Big Brother is mostly successful in that aspect.
There are a ton of peculiar factors to Big Brother; the film has a familiar concept that seems to borrow from films like The Substitute and High School High and television episodes such as South Park’s second episode of season five entitled, “Eek, A Penis!” and Family Guy’s second episode of season four entitled “Fast Times at Buddy Cianci Jr High,” among many others (like School of Rock, to an extent) and the story unfolds in a way that is overly predictable from the start. But Donnie Yen still knows how to assemble some of the most entertaining action sequences you’ve ever seen in a film (those naked guys in the locker room and their vulnerable nether regions didn’t stand a chance) and the film has a positive message that generally has the audience walking away with an upbeat attitude, which is entirely admirable when it isn’t shoved down your throat. Like the Henry Chen character, despite its shortcomings, Big Brother showcases yet again that Donnie Yen is still in his prime and he’s able to display his talent in a way that not only entertains but influences, as well.
© 2018 Chris Sawin